The most dangerous words you and I will ever write


"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."

— Samuel Johnson

Those who use words should do so with great care, especially in such a task as the one in which I ask your help today.

A few weeks back, I got a call from a father. Senior informed me that Junior was starting high school this month and that the family had decided on home schooling. Would I prepare a list of recommended reading?


I've never before shouldered such weighty responsibility.

I consulted with two of the best-read people I know: my wife and our quasi-adopted 16 year-old, Zoe Celeste, fresh from Boston Latin School. (Harvard University was founded in 1636 so BLS grads could have a place to go.)

Over an inspiring vegetarian dinner at the Blue Heron, we came up with a base, part of which appears below.

That's where I need you. Send me your comments and suggestions. Help is also available elsewhere. With the millenium at hand, everybody's publishing lists of the best of the best.

In May, the estimable Utne Reader printed an alternative compilation of books, music and motion pictures with the express intent of circumventing the oft-maligned European white male bias. Utne editor Jay Walljasper may have cut some fat, but he also excised a lot of muscle and bone.

Herewith, the partial Andy-Betty-Zoe list. All additional submissions welcome. Please.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe; "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Both are much maligned of late, but cannot be ignored. These two books define what America was and why she will never succeed unless you and I move beyond the country's ingrained bigotry and prejudice.

Britannica Great Books, edited by Mortimer Adler back in the 1950's; the western white guy classics beginning with Homer and ending with Freud. A few years back, Adler said he would add two more: "Huckleberry Finn" and Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Good call. The Utne list includes the Encyclopaedia Brittanica 11th edition, published in 1910. "The classic edition, acclaimed for its fine writing, offers a window on the world as it existed before the shiny-new, high speed values of the 20th century took over."

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger; a first and unanimous choice by the Blue Heron panel.

"Johnny Got His Gun" by Dalton Trumbo; on Betty's all-time Top 10; for the wiser warrior in all of us. The book presents the greatest exercise imaginable for any writer: how to think visually enough to write a viable screenplay in which almost the entire story takes place in the mind of a deaf man with no arms, no legs and no eyes, lying helpless in a hospital bed. Trumbo himself, one of the greatest screenwriters in history, failed trying to transfer his masterwork to film, according to some who have seen it. The final product received critical acclaim but proved a financial disaster which dogged Trumbo till the day he died.

"A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. Get out your Great Books so you can look up his references to Descartes and the awesome Bishop Berkeley.

"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell. Recommended by Zoe Celeste over "The Story of Philosophy" by Will and Ariel Durant.

"The Worldly Philosophers" by Robert Heilbroner, the best book ever written to explain the dismal science of economics to us, the unenlightened.

"The Bacchae" (sometimes translated as "The Bacchantes") by Euripides.

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov (omitted from the Utne list but added by readers in the September edition). "Flows wonderfully," says Zoe.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus.

"Amerika" and "The Trial" by Franz Kafka.

"The Great Gatsby" by another Zoe's husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not one of my picks to click.

"Light in August" by William Faulkner.

"Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson. Trashed by Utne as "a trunkful of drugs." The Blue Heron Trio disagrees. "A lot of laughs," opined Zoe, identifying perhaps the greatest shortcoming in any ponderous reading list: the uniquely human gift of humor. Drunko Thompson stays in.

— The entire Oedipus cycle by Sophocles. "For this and 'The Bacchae,' read the Richmond Lattimore translations from the University of Chicago Press," advises Zoe.

"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. He could just plain write better than anybody else who lived in this century.

—  "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "Too Late the Phalarope" by Alan Paton. All you need to know about modern racism in South Africa or anywhere else.

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

"The Accidental Asian" by Eric Liu; "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac; "Stones from the River" by Ursula Hegi.

"The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester, considered by many the best science fiction novel ever written.

"The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx; "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau; "The True Believer - Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" and "The Ordeal of Change" both by Eric Hofer; "Native Son" by Richard Wright.

"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" by Homer; "The Aeneid" by Virgil; "A Coney Island of the Mind" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde; "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad; "The Way of Zen" by Alan Watts; "Collected Stories of Flannery O'Connor"; "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville and several movies based thereon; the "American Dream Anthology."

I dreamed I had more space. Haven't even gotten to Shakespeare, poetry, Orson Welles or rock 'n' roll.

More soon, by you, too. Please write! This is important.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and was campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 9/20/98.